Art meets science

I had an interesting trip to Manchester last week to meet Dr James O’Shea, a computer scientist, with whom I’m collaborating on a short story for a special commission. It came about after I was approached by the excellent independent publisher Comma Press to contribute to an anthology of speculative fiction set in 2070.

comma logoSupported by the European Commission’s TRUCE (Training and Research in Unconventional Computing in Europe) programme, the project has paired 15 writers with researchers in computing and artificial intelligence at universities in the UK and mainland Europe. The anthology is to be titled Beta-Life: Short Stories from an A-life Future.

For my story, I’m consulting Dr O’Shea, a senior lecturer in the school of computing, mathematics and digital technology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Dr O’Shea and his colleagues have spent more than ten years researching and developing Silent Talker, a computer programme which uses advanced facial imaging analysis to detect when someone is lying.

By filming an interview subject with computer-linked cameras, the system’s Artificial Neural Network technology detects lies by monitoring dozens of non-verbal ‘channels’, or minute facial gestures, which are beyond the interviewee’s control.MMU logo It is the most sophisticated lie-detection device ever invented, with an accuracy rate of more than 80% (projected to rise to more than 90% with further refinements). It featured in a recent ITV documentary.

What’s particularly interesting about this research, for the purposes of this anthology, is in speculating how far the Silent Talker technology might have developed by 2070. Will we live in a society where lying has become virtually impossible – where anyone can aim a camera, camera-phone or android device at someone else and know, instantly, whether they are telling the truth?

Over several coffees in a noisy Starbucks on Oxford Road, Dr O’Shea and I had a bit of fun travelling 56 years into the future in our imaginations. The science and technology of lie-detection are fascinating in themselves but, as a fiction writer, I’m especially drawn to the ethical, social, political and psychological implications.

I’m going to spend the coming weeks developing and writing the short story. Comma Press have scheduled publication of the anthology for the summer, with each story accompanied by an afterword written by the scientists who have collaborated with the project. The book, to be edited by Martyn Amos and Ra Page, will be the fourth in a series of specially commissioned science-fiction collections by Comma.

Click here to find out more about Silent Talker from the MMU website.

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